Talking Movies

July 11, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis, via motion capture, returns one last time for more monkey business as Caesar, the Moses of intelligent apes.

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Caesar is in the woods, with his apes, and just wants to be left alone; to brood over his murder of rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), and raise his new young son. But not only have Koba’s followers started to collaborate with the humans against Caesar in order to avenge his death, the humans have also become menacingly organised under a new leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). An early bloody skirmish is followed by a night raid with the Colonel himself attempting to terminate Caesar’s command, with extreme prejudice. Caesar abdicates his duties as leader, vowing revenge. While the apes set out for the promised land beyond the desert, Caesar, with trusted lieutenant Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval), and two gorilla bodyguards, sets out to assassinate the Colonel. But matters are complicated by a new mutation of the virus assailing humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes would be more accurately titled Commando Raids for the Planet of the Apes. Indeed a large portion of the movie is Prison Break for the Planet of the Apes, cycling back to the pivotal sequence of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes where super-intelligent Caesar was incarcerated with regular chimpanzees – because he chewed off a man’s fingers for being rude. Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ does not advocate having your hero chew off a man’s fingers for being rude to elicit audience sympathy, quite the opposite really. Yet we are expected to automatically root for Caesar through three films progressively less interested in human characters. If one could call the ciphers in this franchise human. This is surely the worst written trilogy this decade, and logically so; if an audience accepts ciphers, why bother sweating writing characters? If an audience accepts Gary Oldman’s noble sacrifice to save humanity resulting in nothing, why bother even setting up protagonist and antagonist humans? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough is the only articulate human, and even Harrelson can’t excel with this straw man antagonist. Hard to credit this franchise was spawned by Rod Serling’s mischievous screenplay.

Rupert Wyatt in Rise, and Matt Reeves in Dawn, both threw in striking sequences of directorial bravura to try and paper over the poor scripting. But here, there is nothing going on in that department, which is a tremendous surprise given that Reeves returns as director. Where are his visual trademarks – the lengthy tracking shots following chaos exploding into frame, the fixed-position sequences, the Hitchcockian visual suspense? This is all the more surprising given the unsubtle references to the visually extravagant Apocalypse Now: slogans daubed everywhere, a shaven-headed Colonel expounding on history, culture and morality, a mission to exterminate (‘The only good Kong is a dead Kong’), Jimi Hendrix, and, just in case you didn’t get it, ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ graffiti. It’s as if Reeves has just given up, going through the motions in a permanently 3-D darkened landscape of snow and concrete that renders things verily sepia-vision. Steve Zahn as a nebbish ape is a highlight, mostly because, when dressed akin to Bob Balaban’s Moonrise Kingdom narrator, he appears to have wandered in from Wes Anderson’s Planet of the Apes; the idea of which is more entertaining than this tedious movie, dragged out by its insistence on ape sign language.

The powerful and emotive finale is unintentionally hilarious when you realise just how literal the Caesar as Moses motif is being taken, but it’s just one final plodding mis-step. Caesar blows up the Colonel’s base and yet escapes the fiery blastwave because it is all-encompassing but apparently all to one side just to avoid enveloping him, Caesar’s final confrontation with the Colonel sees him extend a character redeeming mercy that looks uncannily like the height of cruelty, and the new mutation of the virus, which reduces humans to mute amiable simpletons, leads us seamlessly into the world of the Charlton Heston classic. So, we are required to cheer for the devolution of the human race into mute amiable simpletons, and yet that isn’t presented as a somewhat challenging proposition when even 2008’s disastrous The Invasion noted the paradox of rooting for free will at the cost of world peace. To reference another 1979 film that’s been in the air this summer Caesar’s story involves us losing the ability to produce another Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman, Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Paul Cezanne or even understand who they were or appreciate what they did. Hail, Caesar?

0.5/5

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May 1, 2014

Twelfth Night

Wayne Jordan tackles Shakespeare’s serious comedy and the result is nearly three and a half hours of mystifying directorial decisions.

Viola (Sophie Robinson) and her ship’s Captain (Muiris Crowley) are washed up on the shores of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian having drowned, Viola adopts his wardrobe to become a male courtier to Duke Orsino (Barry John O’Connor); quickly being favoured above long-suffering Valentine (Elaine Fox). The Duke is in love with the widowed Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), who’ll have nothing to do with him. Olivia is also fending off the suit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), friend of her dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning). Her court is split between the punctiliousness of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) and the buffoonery of Sir Toby, with the Fool Feste (Ger Kelly) and Fabian (Lloyd Cooney) siding with Toby, especially when Olivia’s servant Maria (Ruth McGill) devises a prank to humble Malvolio. But Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) did not drown, he was saved by Antonio (Conor Madden), and their arrival causes comedic chaos…

That at least was what Shakespeare wrote, but it’s not what Jordan renders onstage. The opening line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is taken a bit … literally: 5 massive speakers are wheeled out onto the stage and Orsino plays raucous music on a mandolin plugged into them. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of the start of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video… The speakers are (saving a fridge, table and chairs) all the set Ciaran O’Melia provides, and they’re redundant for most of the action. When active they provide comedy extraneous to the text: playing ‘Sexy Boy’ for the Duke parading his Freddie Mercury cloak, and Rage Against the Machine for Sir Toby standing on a table shouting profanities until the music is turned off. Sir Toby also gets a gong sounded when he does the crane pose during a fight, and he leads Feste and Sir Andrew in a barbershop version of ‘Firestarter’. These are all funny only by virtue of being inappropriate, but if you can’t find comedy within Shakespeare why stage him? Why not set Twelfth Night in Manhattan and sprinkle it with Woody Allen one-liners to get laughs?

This is the third Jordan Abbey production I’ve suffered thru after Alice in Funderland and The Plough and the Stars, and he apparently has no idea of pacing. Twelfth Night starts at 730 and runs until 1055 with one interval. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s nearly 3 ½ hours long… The mark of a confident director of Shakespeare is their willingness to cut the Bard’s text. Instead Jordan inserts material: the insistence on having everyone listen while one character sings a song makes you feel you’ve wandered into some Cameron Crowe nightmare. The ‘brave’ anti-Catholicism of Alice is also in evidence, as, unheeding of Calvary’s critique of the blanket vilification of priests, Jordan decides that the priest interrogating Malvolio should be played by Feste adopting a thick Kerry accent. His appearance being preceded by a jibe from Shakespeare produces the bizarre spectacle of English Anti-Catholicism enacted via Irish Anti-Catholicism.

And then there’s Jordan’s queering of Shakespeare and weak casting… Robinson fails to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola, indeed by the finale Viola has become a petulant teenager, and her Northern accent does not synch with Fullam playing her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian at all. But internal logic isn’t much of a concern in this production. Sebastian is introduced in bed with Antonio (in their tiny whiteys, as everyone must appear in their underwear), as a very literal reading of a few lines of dialogue is used to make them a gay couple. But Jordan wants us to applaud this enlightened reading while at the same time having Valentine play pantomime shocked when she sees it, which is just ridiculously smug back-slapping: much like Alice’s ‘satire’, Jordan appears to think he’s scandalising an audience of Eisenhower and DeValera stalwarts. And then with massive illogicality Fullam’s fey mannerisms as Sebastian are instantly dropped for an enthusiastic sexual relationship with Olivia. Sebastian is either inconsistent or opportunistic, and faithful Antonio is totally shafted by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, who herself is played as obviously still in love with Viola in her female guise. Internal logic schlogic…

The obvious saving grace of this production is the great Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio. He is very funny, especially in convincing himself by crazy leaps of logic that Olivia has written him a love letter. His hysterical appearance in a full yellow-bodysuit underneath his suit is perhaps over-egging the comic pudding, but it’s saved by the perverse dignity with which he replaces his glasses over his hooded head. Radmall-Quirke also exudes that quality of perverse dignity in fending off Malvolio, and the gradual softening of her icy facade is well played. Ger Kelly is also a splendid physical presence as Feste, and his delivery of Fool’s wit sparkling. The impulse to go too far is intermittently present in Lambert’s drunken Sir Andrew, but his outraged vanity gets the biggest laugh out of the script Shakespeare actually wrote. Dunning, however, feels like he’s playing Aidan Gillen’s Sir Toby, not his own.

Dunning’s unexpectedly mean-spirited Sir Toby seems to feed into a bizarre interpretation of the text by Jordan, in which he wants to queer Shakespeare by having the traditional climatic heterosexual marriages be a parade of misery. Olivia and Antonio are unhappy at losing Viola and Sebastian. The Duke marries Viola for no apparent reason, making Valentine unhappy. Sir Toby is horrid to Sir Andrew, and loses his only friend, while Sir Andrew runs away from Illyria. And Malvolio runs thru the audience, with his face stained with tears. O’Halloran is so good you feel like crying at Malvolio’s humiliation, but his exit line could be high comedy as could Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s parting. Instead after 3 ½ hours nearly everyone ends up miserable. The finale is thus so muted that when Feste sings you half-expect the characters to come back. And then they all do, in their underwear … and gather under a giant shower-head, before running off to don bath-robes before bowing. As with so much else, such as the pointless drumming minor characters start before the audience has returned from the interval, I had no idea why that decision was taken.

This production will no doubt receive the acclaim that all Jordan’s projects get, but after three duds I can only protest such acclaim’s undeserved.

2/5

Twelfth Night continues its run at the Abbey until May 24th.

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

October 5, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (aka Ted from How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in a romantic comedy about a disappointed thirtysomething intoxicated anew by the college lifestyle.

Radnor plays Jesse, working in NYC as a college admissions officer; a deeply unfulfilling job. He jumps at the chance to escape back to his alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his mentor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). However, other protégés of Hoberg arrive for the shindig, and their improv drama student daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) makes an immediate impression on Jesse. Not least because her effervescence, thoughtfulness and wit are favourably contrasted with his ice maiden English lecturer Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse and Zibby begin to correspond as she shares her intellectual discoveries with him and he begins to wake up from his jobsworth stupor. Jesse returns to Ohio to see Zibby but should Jesse really be looking for a more age appropriate girlfriend, like cute bookseller and Carla Gugino lookalike Ana (Elizabeth Reaser)?

Liberal Arts at times feels like Radnor looked at Manhattan disapprovingly and decided to write a wiser version of the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character and an ethical version of the 42 year old Woody Allen character. There is a deliriously funny silent scene where the tortured Jesse uses mathematics to convince himself that a relationship with Zibby would be okay. Allen is an obvious reference point; this being the second film in two years that Radnor has written, directed and starred in. This is a cottage industry to get behind though as this is far warmer and wittier than his higher profile HIMYM co-star Jason Segel’s magnum opus Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And that’s despite a fantastically cold supporting turn by Allison Janney; channelling CSI’s Lady Heather as an aloof sexually dominant sage who teaches Jesse some hard lessons.

Radnor fills his film with hilarious sequences. The letters between Jesse and Zibby recall 84 Charing Cross Road and are both charming and very funny; as when Jesse notices that opera does make passersby look prettier. There is a sensational lengthy fight between Jesse and Zibby over a trashy vampire novel that is obviously the Twilight series (Lunar Moon?!), and an unlikely actor makes a simply spectacular cameo as an enigmatic student feeding Jesse Zen wisdom. This is also a film of great heart. Jenkins’ heartfelt regrets at retiring are compassionately treated, and Radnor as well as being a likeable sparring partner for the sparkling Olsen volunteers himself as a mentor for a brilliant but depressed student (John Magaro); during which story thread there is a dismissal of what is surely Infinite Jest that would warm Bret Easton Ellis’ heart.

To Rome with Love confirmed Allen’s rediscovery of his comic talent, but with Liberal Arts Radnor could very well have announced himself as the heir apparent.

4/5

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